Photo: Maria Jiménez ’15 helps patients through the complex world of health care during the most troubling of times.

Sitting in the downtown clinic’s sparse examining room, Maritza waits nervously for the doctor to finish speaking. She heard him say the “c” word in the very beginning. Everything after that is white noise. Hearing a doctor say “breast cancer” is scary. For any woman. But for someone whose first language is Spanish, it can be even more traumatizing due to the language barrier.

Enter María Jiménez ’15, breast cancer patient navigator at the Penn State Health St. Joseph Hospital Oncology department in Reading. She works directly with the uninsured and often uses her bilingual skills to help an underserved Hispanic/Latina population with incomplete or suspicious mammography findings. She is part of a team that manages programs that target breast cancer screening, diagnostic mammography and follow-ups.

“In my position, I become the bridge between the downtown clinic and the Bern Campus to provide these patients with the necessary treatment coordination and to offer assistance with any barriers during this difficult period of time,” says Jiménez.

Photo: Maria Jimenez

Initially, Jiménez does an assessment to see what, exactly, the patient’s needs are, for example: translation/interpretation, transportation or information pamphlets printed in Spanish. She answers questions, coordinates appointments and offers emotional support, too.

“This helps them to be more comfortable. I like to think of it as if I’m wrapping them in angel wings,” says Jiménez. “I will take care of them.”

She currently works with nine patients — women mostly between the ages of 40 and 75. Jiménez is their go-to person. Her patients depend on her, and so do their families. She provides resources for employment and childcare for family members and information on how to care for their sick loved ones. “It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to help the whole family,” says Jiménez.

She also provides services, including interpretation, for non–breast cancer patients. She accompanies them to doctor appointments, informing her charges of the doctors’ instructions and translating the patients’ questions.

The Healthcare Science Gap
Jiménez believes finding her “intense and wonderful job” was a direct by-product of her Alvernia Bachelor of Science degree in healthcare science. As an adult learner, she spent years in the workforce before going back to school to earn her bachelor’s degree. “I had been working in manufacturing for many years, but plants kept closing. It was difficult to get jobs. I decided to go back to school because my passion is working with people. This degree was perfect for me because it combines people and sciences,” she says.

The healthcare science program has flourished since students were accepted to enroll three years ago. Maria was a member of the first graduating class, in May 2015. The program was developed to address needs of the region and the growing field of healthcare, says Dr. Karen Thacker, dean of the College of Professional Programs at Alvernia.

“This program fills a gap in our community workforce,” says Thacker. “We wanted to focus on what our current and future needs are in our healthcare industry, and with the Affordable Care Act, the aging population, and all the things that healthcare systems are doing to keep people healthy and out of the hospitals. This degree gives students the tools to thrive in existing jobs and those yet to be created, supporting the many needs of our community.”

Photo:Alvernia healthcare science grad Maria Jiménez ’15 helps women with breast cancer navigate the healthcare system.

Finding her place
As part of her education, Jiménez shadowed a social worker/patient navigator in the oncology department at Penn State Health St. Joseph’s hospital for four months — and loved it. “I learned the importance of the role of a patient navigator in assisting the patients to overcome their distress and barriers when receiving treatment for a critical disease,” she says. “I also learned how to make referrals for grants and provide patients with other resources.”

The hospital, using grant funds from the Susan G. Komen Foundation, was looking to hire a Spanish-speaking patient navigator. “It was perfect timing,” enthuses Jiménez. “I had an understanding of the process because I was already in the hospital doing my internship. That’s how I got hired.

“I’m happy at my job, and am learning a lot every day. Between the education I received at Alvernia, being a bilingual/bicultural person, and participating in outreach events within the Reading community, I was the perfect candidate.”

By Nancy J. McCann

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